TFC notebook: Reds top of MLS heap, but it’s early

Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei, left, walks away as teammates greet Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore, right, after Altidore scored on a penalty kick in the first half, Saturday, May 6, 2017, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Toronto FC was back in training Monday ahead of its road game against the Columbus Crew on Wednesday.

Here are some news and notes from practice at the club’s training facility in Downsview.

TFC TOP OF THE HEAP IN MLS

Saturday’s 1-0 road victory in Seattle was TFC’s fourth win in a row, and allowed the Reds to exact a small measure of revenge over the Sounders for last year’s loss in the MLS Cup final.

More important, Toronto is off to its best start to an MLS season in franchise history, with a 5-1-4 record and 19 points, and currently sits in first place in the Eastern Conference and the overall league standings.

Coach Greg Vanney, though, was quick to downplay the team’s early-season success, reminding reporters after Tuesday’s training session that TFC haven’t won anything just yet, and that being first place in May means nothing – it’s how you end the season that counts.

“It’s still early,” Vanney said. “We keep building. We’re by no means there yet. We just keep building.”

That being said, Vanney believes the club’s winning streak and string of solid team performances is a good omen, and provides a solid foundation for which the team can build upon going forward. It’s also given his players a major boost of confidence, and in MLS, that’s a big advantage.

“I think it’s great for confidence that we’re on this good run. This is a league of momentum, and confidence is one of those things that can tilt the needle just a little bit more in your favour,” Vanney opined.

“I don’t want to take that away from the [players], but this is a process of getting better over the course of the year.”

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ROTATION, ROTATION, ROTATION

Coming off a midweek win over Orlando at BMO Field, Vanney wisely decided to rotate his squad and give some key starters the afternoon off on Saturday. Sebastian Giovinco, Victor Vazquez, Steven Beitashour and Eriq Zavaleta didn’t even make the trip to Seattle, while goalkeeper Clint Irwin made his first start since injuring his hamstring on March 31.

There were five lineup changes in all: Irwin for Alex Bono; midfielders Jay Chapman and Benoit Cheyrou, and defender Jason Hernandez made their first starts of the season; and Chris Mavinga was also back in the starting 11, only his second start for the Reds.

Cheyrou teamed with captain Michael Bradley to effectively pressure Seattle’s midfielders early, thus allowing very little off-the-ball penetration by the home side. Cheyrou was also excellent in possession, holding up the ball and acting as a release valve as TFC’s defenders were allowed to reset and not get caught out by Seattle in transition.

Hernandez and Mavinga worked well in unison with Nick Hagglund, allowing Seattle to get just two shots on target on Irwin. Vazquez has been TFC’s chief midfield creator this season, so Chapman had big shoes to fill. The young Canadian proved he was more than up to the job, exquisitely pulling the creative strings in attack, and linking up with forward Jozy Altidore.

Vanney had previously talked about the importance of giving backup players minutes, and to manage his starters’ playing time. On Saturday afternoon, we received a not-so subtle reminder of the quality of Toronto FC’s depth and its ability to grind out results.

It’s a quick turnaround for TFC this week – after playing in Columbus on Wednesday, they host Minnesota United FC at BMO Field on Saturday afternoon – so you can expect Vanney to make more lineup changes and rely on his bench depth over the course of the next two games.

“We’ll make some rotations. I made the statement [after the Seattle win] that we have an incredibly deep team. I would put the depth of our team against any team ever in the history of this league,” Vanney stated.

“We’re going to utilize everybody and try to stay as fresh as we can. We have the tools to win each of these games, and in various ways we’ll adjust the combinations of guys, and maybe the tactics.”

CATCHING UP WITH DREW MOOR

Veteran Drew Moor worked out on his own on Tuesday as he remains on modified duty while recovering from an irregular heartbeat.

Moor, 33, played every minute of the team’s first five games of the campaign, quarterbacking a three-man defence that kept three clean sheets and conceded just four goals. But he’s sat out the last five games after being diagnosed, consulting with a cardiologist, and having a minor procedure in Boston.

Vanney said he expects Moor to be cleared to return to full training by Tuesday, and hopes to have him available for Saturday’s home contest against Minnesota.

The Reds have hardly missed a beat without Moor, winning four of five games with two shutouts.

“[The defence] has been unbelievable. I might have to win a starting spot back,” Moor quipped.

“Four wins in a row, and defensively we’ve been so good and so organized. That’s a credit to the guys who’ve been in there.”

Check back with Sportsnet.ca on Tuesday morning as I’ll have a feature story on Drew Moor’s comeback.

QUICK LOOK AHEAD TO COLUMBUS

TFC and the Crew met last month in Columbus when the home side earned a 2-1 win, with Jozy Altidore scoring in a losing cause.

Toronto has won four straight since that setback, which Vanney described as a turning point of sorts for the Reds.

“From that game we re-calibrated a little bit [in terms of] how far we’re going to try to press things, and how stretched out we really want to be; being a little more aware of our spacing and defensive shape, and things like that that have helped us to regroup and find a better balance,” Vanney explained.

Columbus is coming off of a 2-0 home win over the New England Revolution, a result that ended a modest two-game losing streak. The Crew currently sit third in the Eastern Conference with a 5-4-1 record and 16 points – two spots and three points behind Toronto.

Toronto and Columbus will meet for the third and final time this season on May 26 at BMO Field.

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